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The Unweeded Garden of Cora Jenks

At the Loeb through November 11

By Fred Gardner

That most versatile writer, Jonathan Swift, almost conspicuously avoided the drama. Yet Carter Wilson '63 has put the experimental theatre to excellent use in developing Swift's painful definition of felicity: "the possession of being well deceived. The state of being a fool among knaves."

Wilson sets the Dean in a Bristol madhouse operated by the shrewish Cora Jenks. This overly coarse woman grew rich by exhibiting her inmates, and now, in violation of the contract by which he was committed, she wants to add the Dean to her show.

Naturally, since the insane aren't terribly interesting or eloquent, Wilson's Dean Andrew Garth is not insane at all. So throughout the first act you don't really understand why he doesn't opt you. But then he says he doesn't want to live in a world full of poverty and disease and misery ("sensitive" somebody explained to me afterwards). For him the madhouse offers, if not utopia, the possible circumstances of love.

There is a danger in writing about the pseudoinsane, and it is the danger of trickery. I do not think Carter Wilson captures the spirit of Swift in suggesting private retreat. But Wilson is entitled to his philosophical foray, after all, and in a cleverly blocked final scene he shows the Dean's actions for what they are: a stab at desperate alternative. And it stands very much to Wilson's credit that he fuses philosophy and personality in each character with such steady craft.

A good director, Jon Walton, handled what is essentially a wordy play with real agility. And if his casting was spotty, it should be noted that a few garish performances did not seriously mar the play just as a few brilliant ones did not make it.

On the garish side, Mary Vogel Walton has a bad diction problem ("lit-tle, Lat-tin, . ."). Despite her handsome bearing, when she opens her enough what comes out is dull, thus reducing the Dean's patron (and former pupil) to a dramatic nonentity, Kathrya Schoes (Cora Jenks) commits the converse sin of unmitigated shricking.

But wonderful, controlled jobs are turned in by Michael Solomon and Priscilla Ellis, two of the inmater Geoffrey Fox shows some good timing as the local doctor, and Lewis B. Kaden (Dean Garth), speaks with welcome clarity and keeps the expository line of the play moving smoothly, though at times he comes on like Paul Anka (now I'm serious: look at my knit brows).

The production is intelligently lit, fittingly (if shabbily) costumed, and well suited to its arena staging.

Carter Wilson's new play is neither consistent nor polished. But it is never less than intriguing and at times rises to moments of dramatic flair. He and Walton have staged a successful experiment in the most instructive sense.

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